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It's time for media to stop enabling the Fraser Institute's misleading practices, lack of rigour and cheap embargoes

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I have a challenge for the mainstream media in Alberta.

When the Fraser Institute publishes its attack on public services in the province this morning, include reaction in your stories from knowledgeable sources that are likely to challenge the fanciful conclusions reached by this key player in Canada's well-funded and well-oiled corporate propaganda machine.

Spokespeople for public service unions, representatives of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta, academics at a variety of universities and economists like Jim Stanford and Andrew Jackson associated with labour organizations are all potential candidates for this essential role in what we used to know as fair, accurate and balanced journalism.

We know the so-called "institute" is going to release a "study" tomorrow because it has softened up the media with a barrage of press notices preparing them for another press release today from its busy cadre of market-fundamentalist novelists in Vancouver.

Today’s work of creative writing will be called "Fumbling the Alberta Advantage: How Alberta Squandered a Decade of High Energy Prices." Notwithstanding the Fraser Institute’s obvious biases and consistent record of misleading conclusions, this is actually a good question, to which Albertans deserve the real answers. It is unlikely, however, we will get them from the Fraser Institute.

We can be reasonably certain the Fraser Institute's conclusions will be that Alberta spends too much on public services and that public services cost too much, because, well, that’s what the Fraser Institute always concludes. Indeed, that's what this organization -- which, despite its charitable status is engaged in 100 per cent political activities 100 per cent of the time in violation of the Canada Revenue Agency’s rules -- has been created by corporations and wealthy individuals and funded to the tune of about $11 million a year to do.

Fraser Institute "research" always lines up precisely with the agenda of its corporate financiers, and today's will be no different. It would only be news if the Fraser Institute didn't attack public services, since its core position is that the private sector always does a better job of everything.

The Fraser Institute's typical modus operandi is to quote statistics from legitimate sources accurately enough, but to reach conclusions in its press release -- which is the truly important document from the point of view of what the group actually exists to achieve -- that are not supported by the evidence. In other words, the Fraser Institute doesn't make up facts, it just twists their meaning -- often with spectacular insouciance -- and then tells the media they mean whatever it feels like.

Indeed, often the numbers quoted actually support the opposite conclusion to that in the press release.

For example, in its report comparing government and private sector compensation in Alberta last month, the group concluded that "the government sector enjoys a clear wage premium." Yet the statistics it used to support this conclusion showed only a 4-per-cent differential, which the University of Toronto called "statistically indistinguishable" at plus or minus 2 per cent.

To redeem its position, the Fraser Institute claimed that other "non-wage compensation" broaden the difference, but admitted in the fine print that "individual data on non-wage benefits such as vacation time and health benefits are not available in Canada." So what, they just guessed?

Another favourite Fraserite technique is to cherry pick comparators. So, for example, in a "study" last summer on the finances of energy producing states and provinces, the Fraser Institute simply left out jurisdictions that didn't tell the story it wanted to tell.

Even then, the actual facts used in the Fraser's study showed that Alberta’s finances were in better shape than those of other jurisdictions, not in worse shape as the group's press release stated.

In 2014, when economic data glossed over in previous Fraser Institute reports on the economic performance of anti-union "right-to-work" states made it impossible to pretend any longer that anti-union laws produce higher living standards, and when this had been pointed out by union economists one time too many, the group dealt with the embarrassment by simply leaving out the data entirely!

Sometimes it just relies on implications only casually related to the facts.

Last week Mark Milke, a "senior fellow" with the Fraser Institute -- and a former Alberta Director of the so-called Canadian Taxpayers Federation, another key part of the corporate propaganda machine, and a regular columnist in the Calgary Herald -- argued preposterously that former premier Ralph Klein "saved health care and education" by diverting money from those activities to paying down the province’s debt. (The words in quotations are the headline writer’s, not Milke's, but they accurately reflect his intent.)

You see, Milke intoned, "the province soon spent substantially less on debt interest, freeing up tax dollars for other priorities, health care and education included."

The only problem with this line of argument is that health and education simply weren’t the priorities on which Klein's government spent the money it saved. No, it was used to cut taxes to wealthy individuals and corporations.

Former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft explained what’s really been going on in his meticulously researched 2012 book Follow the Money: "While spending on public services in Alberta is very close to the Canadian average, profits in 2008 were 309 per cent higher than the Canadian average, and have been far higher throughout the entire 20 years covered by the data."

Nothing changed during the Progressive Conservative premierships of Alison Redford or Dave Hancock, and obviously nothing is going to change under PC Premier Jim Prentice either.

I expect today's news release from the Fraser Institute will make similar claims about the cost of public services in Alberta, once again unsupported by the evidence but heavily spun in the news release.

I also expect it will be recorded in the media with the solemnity and unquestioning reverence once reserved for the Scriptures.

As economist Stephen Lewis commented in his excellent deconstruction of the Fraser Institute's methodology: "Why let science and rigour get in the way of a good story?" Especially when you can be confident the media will just reprint your press release.

There's not much we can do about the Fraser Institute's shabby practices, but the media's servile treatment of it is a disgrace. As consumers of the media's products, we have a right to demand better.

The Fraser Institute gets away with this, by the way, by sending out its press releases with a note slapped on the top that says they're embargoed till the next morning.

Embargoed, in the argot of the news business, means a news release or some other document has been given to the media in advance of the date on the first page. In return, the media are asked not to reveal the contents to anyone until the publication time.

We're not talking about something like a budget lockup here, in which a journalist or news organization agrees not to release information until a certain time in return for an advance peek at the data. It's just a note placed arbitrarily atop a news release by a PR person -- which is really all that the "researchers" at the Fraser Institute are -- with zero moral or legal meaning. At best, it's a request.

It's time for the media to stop honouring the Fraser Institute's sneaky embargo tactic, and today would be an excellent day to do it. Let's see some balance in those stories!

 

Fraser report, news coverage, exactly as predicted

Well, the first news story on the Fraser Institute’s Alberta press release has now been published and, exactly as predicted when I wrote this piece last night, it contains zero reaction or balance. The piece, shamefully, is by the CBC, which is regularly excoriated by the loony right as a hotbed of liberals and wets. The reality is writ large in this story. With the CBC providing coverage like this, who needs Sun News?

As for the Fraser Institute’s claims, also as predicted the news release appears to be nothing but the usual screed about how we need to spend less on social programs and fair pensions for public employees while maintaining massive tax breaks for foreign corporations. I will take a more detailed look at it later.

The CBC story ends with the statement, presumably lifted directly from the author’s press release, that “the Fraser Institute is an independent non-partisan research and educational organization based in Canada.” This is an outright falsehood on all counts. The organization is hardly independent of its funders as its research topics show, it is in no way non-partisan and it only researches and “educates” in the name of market-fundamentalist propaganda. Whoever did the stenography of the press release should be ashamed, and whoever approved its publication is an outright disgrace.

 

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Flickr/Raj Taneja

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